New Delhi: With the countdown to the battle for Raisina Hill having already started, leaders of "secular" parties are making a beeline to 10, Janpath, to discuss ways to counter the Modi-Shah juggernaut through a consensus candidate for India's top constitutional post when President Pranab Mukherjee's term ends in July.
The parleys are still in a preliminary stage and it is too early for anyone to pinpoint a candidate, but according to informed sources the regional parties are keen on a candidate from among them, instead of from the Congress.
Earlier this week, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar called on Congress President Sonia Gandhi to discuss a joint opposition candidate for the presidential election.
Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal-United (JD-U) President Nitish Kumar, JD-U leader Sharad Yadav, Communist Party of India (CPI) leader D. Raja and Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPI-M) leader Sitaram Yechury have all met Gandhi.
In fact, it all started after Nitish Kumar met Sonia Gandhi last week and asked her to take the lead in identifying a consensus candidate for the Presidential elections, which need to be held before July 25, the day when Mukherjee's term expires.
"There is no other way out (but finding a common candidate). India's Constitution is in danger, its Preamble's ideals are being attacked. If a Sangh Parivar member becomes India's Constitutional head, the Constitution itself will likely be reviewed, which will not be good for Indian democracy," JD-U Spokesman K.C. Tyagi told IANS.
He said parties may reach a consensus by the end of May.
They would, of course, not open their cards at this stage, though a few names including those of Sharad Pawar and Sharad Yadav are alreay doing the rounds.
"Soniaji telephoned me and I went to meet her. We discussed putting up a common candidate for Presidential elections. But no names were discussed," Raja told IANS.
"The candidate has to be a consensus candidate," he added.
However, cobbling a grand alliance -- for the immediate challenge of Presidential elections and for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls -- will not be easy given the disenchantment of some regional satraps with the Congress' knack of playing big brother in all situations.
"The problem is wherever the Congress is big it is not willing to take the smaller parties along. And in the places where it is small, it seeks the lion's share from the bigger parties," a senior leader of a big regional party who did not wish to be named told IANS.
Citing a recent example, the leader said that in the Karnataka by-elections recently the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) helped the Congress by not fielding candidates and the Congress candidates won.
"But the Congress said it has won on its own. It refused to acknowledge the help it got from the JD-S," he added.
"Some secular parties are maintaining a false arrogance. Until they touch down with practicality and reality, it will not be easy to defeat the BJP," another opposition leader said.
However, Raja said: "I don't know what others say about the Congress because all said and done, the Congress is the largest opposition party and so it should take the lead."
But he added in the same breath that the Congress cannot unilaterally decide the presidential candidate.
Add to this enchantment the ambition of some of the regional satraps who at the fag end of their careers are wishing to enjoy a leisurely sunset sitting in the sprawling lawns of the majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan, and you know they are in no mood to listen to the terms of engagement to be dictated by the big brother.
Also, the fight is close, with scales not tilting clearly to any one side.
"It will be an interesting contest. Including all non-NDA parties, we have around 35,000 more votes as compared to NDA, but there would be disruptions (tor-phor). Amit Shah and Modi are expert in tor-phor," Tyagi said.
"We want to fight this election as the saviours of the Constitution and the idea of India versus the vidhvansak (destroyer)," he said.